Evil Twins

I’ve got some plants growing in the garden that I am pretty sure are tomatoes.   I think they are because I grew tomatoes there last year and I left fruit behind.  Plus they look like tomato seedlings.  Still, I yanked them out.  But that’s because I’m growing spinach in that bed this year.  I spared a few of the hardier ones and potted them.  If they turn out to be the real thing, I’ve got extras.  But I’m still wary.

I’ve been burned by look-a-likes before.  Years ago I planted June-bearing strawberries next to Ever-bearing ones.  Turned out the Ever-bearing strawberries were Barren strawberries, a wild plant that grows here in Michigan.Image

 

http://www.annarbor.com/home-garden/barren-strawberry—an-unforgiving-name-for-a-nice-native-plant/

 

 

It took me two years to root them all out and there are still more growing in a field behind the house.  It is the evil twin of the sweet strawberry that experienced gardeners recognize immediately and weed out.

And that got me to thinking about the problem of the evil twin/look-a-like in literature.  Fooling a novice or a stranger that a character is who they pretend to be is fine.  But, fooling a spouse of loved one is just plain stupid.

Many years ago I led a youth group at my church that met in a cavernous room on an upper floor.  Nearly every one of the girls in the group could tell who was walking up the stairs by the sound off their footsteps and they got it right every time.  Even if it was a group of kids coming up, they could discern each pattern in seconds and call them out by name.

Identifying a person by just the sounds of their steps on a set of stairs was beyond my sensory perception, but not by your average fourteen year-old girl.  I could. however identify a co-worker from half a mile away, in the dark, by the way they guided in an aircraft (I work at an airport by-the-way).   It manner in witch the lighted-wands moved was ad individual as fingerprints.

This is why I can’t stand TV shows, movies or books that show a husband totally fooled by a look-a-like.  It doesn’t work in the real world, it shouldn’t work in fiction.  

As writers we need to weed out the tired memes that wouldn’t fool a fourteen year-old.  We need to kill off the evil twins.

Unknowable Trends and Weird Patterns

 

 

Anyone who has tended a garden the past few years or stuck their head outside this past winter knows that the weather has gone crazy. The unpredictable patterns of weather can wreak havoc on fruit trees and ground crops. A few warm weeks that get the blossoms going with a promise of a bumper crop can be dashed with one late frost. Fortunately, we dodged that bullet here in Michigan, I can expect cherries and apples on my trees for the first time in three years.

Gardening can be a hit or miss thing when it comes to unpredictable weather. Late frosts, wet springs that promote mold and fungus, dry summers, blistering hot days that drag on and shrivel everything in sight, are just a few things to worry about. We still carry on and hope for the best only sure of one thing, nothing is certain.

Writing trends are no different. The teenage vampire love story is dead and now love triangles are being strangled to death. Authors who have been working on such stories have a hard time at publication. The trends are shifting. The independent heroine is spiking. Give a girl a bow and arrow and have her save herself and you’ve got a hit. Problem is, it won’t be the trend three years from now.

Writing to the market is like planning a garden three years out. There is no way to tell if a soil fungus will prevent you from ever growing tomatoes again or not. No way to tell if YA dystopias will be over in 2017 and everyone is on the Urban Fantasy bandwagon.

They say, never write to the market, write what you love. But what if you love Western Adventures or Vampire love triangles? Sometimes you have to look at the trends that are actually selling and write accordingly. Sometimes you have to give up on growing bananas in Chicago and settle on blackberries.

You don’t have to copy the trends, maybe make your vampire a cowboy, and maybe freeze those blackberries for a smoothie. Sure you can write what you love, but don’t ignore the trends. Make those trends work for you.

 

Challenges

Challenges

I started gardening because I refused to pay more than a dollar for a tomato. Cost played a lot into my decision. Since that first year I have spent way more than I have saved. This year is going to be different. This year I’m going to challenge myself and try to grow everything without spending a cent.

I’ve got seeds galore, and I harvested seeds from last year. Got a worm farm making castings all winter long and two compost heaps to amend the soil. Still got organic pesticides and antifungal sprays left over but I’m using companion planting to keep from using that stuff too much.

The real secret to low-cost gardening is to make it productive for my tastes. I can’t have too much salsa or spaghetti sauce that means growing plenty of tomatoes, onions and peppers. I can only eat so many pickles, so I’m cutting back on the cucumbers this year. By growing only the things that I really like and is easy to store, I can make the garden work for me rather than work for it. Sure, it’s good to know that I can grow muskmelons and peanuts, but I’m not all that crazy over them.

So that’s the gardening challenge. For writing I need to do something along the same lines.

I’ve been sitting on some stories for a while now. I got a few rejections and that stopped me from sending them back out as well as not sending out newer stories. So in order to get over that, I’m going to submit one story a day for the month of June. I’ll keep you all updated on the progress and link any of the accepted stories.

It’s important to set goals. Daily word counts are as important as spraying fruit trees before they blossom. But unless we also set challenges, push ourselves into doing tough and uncomfortable things we may never grow as writers or gardeners. There was a time I couldn’t stand editing a story. I wanted everyone to love the first draft. That was foolish. Editing is as important as weeding. Now I can’t post a thing unless I edit it a few times.

We learn by experience, we grow through difficulty and we get stronger from challenges.

 

Going Dormant

A garden in November is a sad sight.  Nearly everything in the beds are dead or dying.  A few green tomatoes hang from fallen plants, forgotten and abandoned.   Weeds take their chance at getting a foothold as if they know the no one is coming after them.  A few marigolds keep a splash of color in an otherwise brown and gray landscape.  The kale is still doing good, they can keep growing past the first snowfall and the garlic is just getting started.

Any semblance of order and care is gone.  The human touch has been removed and nature is left to her own devices.

The same thing happens on thousands of writing boards in November.  A vast migration of writers abandon their typing grounds for the fields of NaNoWriMo.  Alpha readers, crit groups, prompt boards are denuded of talented wordsmiths who flock to the NaNo boards in a frenzy of plotting propagation.  They leave behind those scribblers who are either too old (those who still use an IBM Selectric) or too weak (ones still on dial-up) to make the arduous passage.

But then there are also a few who choose to stay behind, to keep the boards from going dark in the weeks and months to come.  These caretaker writers are the garlic and onions of the literary world.  Usually, bitter key-peckers who can’t produce the necessary word count to attempt the NaNo and disparage those who do.  They log in to the old boards to find no new posts day after day, anxiously awaiting the first day of December only to find the Nano-ers languishing in a post-novel state.  The poor hacks stay holed up in filthy dens or overpriced coffee shops, determined to edit their nightmare of a MS for the next six weeks before returning to a silent board and the pity of those they left behind.

Okay, so I don’t like this time of year.  I’ve got too much work cleaning up the garden with no immediate gain from it and my writing group dries up to a couple of sad novelist whose criticisms of our WIP’s (works in progress) is too little too sustain us until the others return.  By then we are too far ahead for them to catch up on but could you be a dear and do a line edit of my NaNo?

 A writing board is a sad sight in November.  It makes me yearn for the spring when novels emerge like flash fiction in a reading fee-less contest.  Until then I suppose I’ll have to get use to things going dormant.    

Homemade Salsa

Anyone who makes their own salsa knows how good it is compared to what they can buy at the market.  Some people love cilantro in theirs, or a little more vinegar to give it that ‘bite’.  I make my salsa with red onions, fresh jalapenos and habanero peppers that I dried out last year.  I can’t buy that kind of salsa in the store, they don’t make it like I do. 

There’s a lot that the market cannot provide for you that you can do for yourself.  No gardener ever looked at her flawless Roma tomatoes and said “I’d rather use the Romas from Walmart.”  Once a gardener knows what they are doing, nothing ‘out there’ can compare to what you can produce on your own.

I got into writing because I knew I could tell stories as good as those writers ‘out there’.  Unfortunately, writing entails more than just having a good imagination.  You have to learn the rules and master the craft.  But once you do, once you really know what you are doing, your stories have to be as good as or better than the current market.   

Good writers don’t just copy what they see on the bookshelves any more than good cooks copy what they can buy on the grocery shelves.  Our stories have to be better than the stories we see played out on TV (okay maybe not Game of Thrones but you get the idea).  We have to be excited about our projects and can’t wait to get back into that world to see what happens next. 

If we as the creators are not excited about our work why should the readers be?  If we would rather watch the next episode of Revenge than work on our novel, why would anyone want to read it? 

New writers are exempt from this.  They have to suck for a while before they can get better.  But for the rest of us, those scribblers who have a couple novels in the bottom of a desk or lost on a floppy disk somewhere, we have to make sure our current work is as good as our homemade salsa.

Flowers and Foils

Flowers and Foils

 

What good are flowers in a vegetable garden?  I asked this of myself a few years back when trying to get more tomatoes and peppers and corn out of the ground.  Planting flowers seemed a waste of time and effort.  Sure they look nice, but you can’t eat them.  Well, actually you can eat them, but would you want to.

Aside from being edible flowers provide more benefits to a garden than just being dirt candy.  They are invaluable companions to the veggie and fruit plants than most people imagine.

Just like a good character foil, flowers protect and nourish their neighbors.  A character foil is the sidekick whose personality, while different from the hero’s, brings out the best in the main character.  Think Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  Holmes would still be a brilliant detective, but without Watson to remind him of his humanity, Sherlock would just be a brilliant smartass.

Last year I did some companion planting in the garden.  Peas and corn (the peas adds nitrogen that corn can’t get enough), and the scent of onions growing in your strawberries will deter pests.  But by far the most useful plant in any garden is the marigold.  Those little orange and yellow puffs have kept my patio mosquito free for two years and now they have driven out more pests than Orkin.  The real proof came when I had one patch of greens totally infested with insect eggs while across the yard another patch that had marigolds next to them were bug free.

In my novel, I have the hero pegged, your typical pacifist forced into action.  His companion is more of the burly hero type, quick to act, slow to speak.  In my latest chapter I have tried shifting the POV to the foil to give him a voice.  I have come to discover his voice is thin and tinny.  Now, I have gone over his character sketch, gave a good backstory, have him with his own agenda, quirks, weaknesses, strengths, etc… but he still comes off as two dimensional.

I’ve spent so much time in the head of my protagonist that I have short-changed a great character and the readers as well.

When I plant marigolds, I start them from seed.  I get two or three dozen of the plants going and I nurture them when they are young.  Once they can fend for themselves I just water them and leave them be.  The time invested in their budding weeks pays off dividends.  Even when they wilt and the petals are gone, the marigold leaves behind dozens of seeds at the base of each flower.

So, if my companion plants can do so much and provide many benefits to my garden, why shouldn’t my foil?

If you are planting anything this year, add some marigolds to the mix.  You will love it.

If you have a foil, develop them and put them to work.  Your readers will love it.

Under Pressure

Just picked up a pressure canner yesterday and used it to can some spaghetti sauce this morning.  The canner marks the last big ticket gardening item I’ll have to buy for some time. I feel like I have crossed over some invisible threshold from consumer to homesteader.  I suppose once I have a year’s supply of food preserved I’ll be a prepper, but that day is still a long way off.  For now I’m learning all the skills my mother forgot once she left her Arkansas farm for the promise of high paying jobs in the city.

Anyhow, the sauce turned out fine and it’ll sit on the shelf for a few months until needed.  There are still a hundred pounds of green tomatoes on the vines that’ll become salsa and tomato sauce, enough to last me until next summer.  So that vision I had six years ago (of not paying 3 bucks a pound for tomatoes) when I started this venture is now paying off.  Along with preserving tomatoes I’ve become expert at pickling cucumbers – both the dill and the bread and butter types, as well as peppers.  Heck, peppers grow themselves.

I still have dozens of other veggies that I can’t get right.  Potatoes are tiny, peas shriveled up and  only three carrots made it to maturity.   The weather didn’t help this year, no fruit came up except the blueberries and strawberries, and those were eaten in short order, nothing left to preserve.  But I’m very hopeful for next year, I’m more confident.

I’m not as confident in my writing.  I know I’ve improved significantly over the years.  I’ve worked on a specific style of writing and attempted to ‘find my voice’.  Like the garden, I know I’m getting there, but I’m not there yet.  Yet, that damn clock is ticking and I’m not getting any younger.

Two years ago I made a promise to myself to take this writing seriously.  To get better, to get published, to finish the novel I’ve coddled for five years.  I stopped playing Civilization and took those hours of playtime to write.  I stopped watching a dozen TV shows, stopped Facebooking, stopped Minecrafting, stopped YouTubing and used that time to write, to get better, to get published.

I gave myself until the end of this year to show some results.  Now that three months remain until my personal deadline hits, I’m feeling the pressure.  If I didn’t have a hundred pounds of tomatoes on the vine and a dozen jars of pickles and peppers on the shelf I would have given up on this gardening kick.  But I have tangible results, so I will keep on.  If my writing doesn’t yield any fruit after devoting so much time to it, do I throw in the towel?

The good news is that I’ve become more consistent in my writing.  I write everyday now, not when I feel like it or when I’m inspired.  I never felt like weeding the cucumbers or watering the sunflowers.  I never felt inspired to turn the compost heap or cut back the blackberry brambles.  I did those things because they had to be done.  Writers write because they have to.  If they don’t write on a consistent basis they shouldn’t call themselves writers any more than someone with just an herb box deserves to call themselves a gardener.

In the pressure canner, once everything was in place, the water boiling, the jars placed just right, the lid secured; it only took fifteen minutes to process the sauce.  A lot can be done under pressure given the right conditions.

If your writing isn’t fruitful and you’ve spent years talking about a book or a story you’ve never started, isn’t it time to add a little pressure?  Whatever your current project is, a poem, an epic or trying to get a seedless watermelon to grow larger than a softball, give yourself a cutoff date.  If you can’t finish it by then, or at least come close, then move on.  Consider your identity, as a gardener or a writer, always under pressure.